Luka Modric and Croatia, the destroyers of dreams, survive to preserve their own

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Luka Modric had stared into the distance as, at long last, Brazil found the breakthrough and their voice. As Neymar scampered away, after exchanging a one-two with Rodrygo and then Lucas Pacqueta, before finishing high into the Croatia net, the curtain to an epic career at the top of international football was being brought down.

But around 20 minutes later, Modric was riding on the back of Ivan Perisic, chasing after the goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, them all charging towards another World Cup semi-final. For so long, Modric had been the one carrying Croatia. After another 120 minutes of pure heart and effort on 37-year-old legs, it was a ride he needed and had more than deserved.

How does he do this? How do they do this? Croatia have once again fought on and refused to die. It is what they do. They grind you down and suffocate you in an airless room, desperate for the chance to breathe again. When a population of 4.5 million suggests they should have no chance, Croatia existing in the latter stages of a major tournament is their lifeblood. While it was Bruno Petkovic putting a deflected effort past Alisson to rescue Croatia, it was Modric winning the ball back from his friend and former team-mate Casemiro at the start of the move to salvage their hopes.

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It is what has defined Modric, as much as the skill and the poise. It has been the graft; the tireless tracking back after forages forward, the touch to dangle a foot into a challenge and emerge, while bursting away, with the ball tied to his boot. It was needed here, all on the finest of margins. Modric played three matches on a booking without once stepping out of line, knowing one more would rule him out of potentially his final match for Croatia. He had been taken off in extra time against Japan – he had to watch the shoot-out from the side-lines – and there was no chance that would happen here. He now has another semi-final.

Croatia have made it there again. They did so by playing at their own pace, once more extending a knockout match at a major tournament beyond 90 minutes. Brazil had danced their way into the quarter-finals as they put four goals past South Korea in a joyous first half. It was a match that was arguably over by 12 minutes, but it did not take long for Brazil to realise that this would be a much longer and considerably more arduous affair.

By the end, Croatia had once again assumed their role as the silent killers of international football, the destroyer of dreams that seeps in under the crack in the door when no one is watching. Zlatko Dalic’s side don’t quite turn the screw in terms of threatening to score, but they do by creating a sense of unease as they take the ball and look after it.

It is a feeling that spread, slowly but noticeably, at the Education City Stadium as Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic shuttled the ball around and from side to side. Croatia don’t just keep the ball – they hold it in front of your face, always within reach but somehow never in sight. It was clear in the short but delicate passes involving Croatia’s midfield trio. Once the ball disappeared, it would often do so for two or three minutes.

Croatia again had to withstand moments here to take it into extra time. Livakovic’s saves in the penalty shoot-out secured their third World Cup quarter-final since 1998 and his display against Brazil preserved hopes of a third semi-final, too. Against Brazil, Modric would drop into a right back position while Josip Juranović charged forward. In space, he remained supreme. Deft touches and turns. Shimmies and flicks. Weight shifting from one foot to the other, gliding off into the opposite direction on the occasions he had the ball. His World Cup story continues. It was one that began at the World Cup in 2006, at the age of 21, and carries on now, 135 caps and 17 appearances at the World Cup later.

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By this point, it is going to take something extraordinary to break the will of Croatia, who at times appear to be fueled by the longevity and heart of their ageless captain. Before tonight, many had tried, most had failed: Japan and Belgium did so at this World Cup, but England can also attest to how when the peerless midfielder is around, it feels like matches can slip away. Brazil, stunned by the end, now find themselves on that list.

It was the 2018 World Cup and Croatia’s run to the final that sealed Modric’s place in the hall of the football greats. Qatar has been less vintage for Modric, and Croatia have been reliant on spirit to make up for the lack of attacking quality that has been lost in the intervening years.

Croatia and Modric, though, have more heart than most. Was anyone surprised when Croatia held on to force extra time? To reach the quarter-finals Croatia had already survived, prevailing against Belgium to get out of Group F before beating Japan on penalties, while extending their record of not winning a World Cup knockout match in normal time since 1998. They emerge from penalties, again, after what looked certain to be their final demise.

The clock had ticked past 105 minutes in extra time when, for the first time, all of Modric’s 37 years were clearer to see. It was noticeable as Neymar played the first part of his one-two with Rodrygo, before spinning past Modric and into space. From looking old and gone, Modric then found that extra gear to win the ball back from Casemiro. From the brink, he extended this extraordinary journey.

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